Aerial photographs obtained by the Inquirer and published last week reveal incontrovertible proof that Beijing’s militarisation of its South China Sea outposts is almost complete.
In response to this latest outrage, another demonstration of Xi Jinping’s contempt for compromise commitments his predecessors entered into with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Philippines offered … a collective shrug, combined with a finger pointed in the usual direction.
“If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything about these artificial islands, what [do] they want us to do? We cannot declare war – not only is it illegal, but it is also contrary – but it’s also … impossible for us to declare war at this point,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, once a credible lawyer and expert in international law, told reporters.
Among other dismaying statements, he also said this: “Our position is everything found on these islands was already there when the president took over. So let’s not talk of a militarisation that happened under the Duterte administration, if there is such a militarisation – which China denies.”
He should have at least read the news report before opening his mouth. The story quoted Eugenio Bito-onon Jr, former mayor of Kalayaan town on Pag-asa Island, the largest part of the Spratlys occupied by the Philippines: “I flew with HBO before the elections in 2016. We got repeated warnings from the Chinese because we were circling over the islands. I see there are now additional vertical features.”
To this categorical statement from someone who lives in the area, one can add any number of scholarly or intelligence assessments, including from independent institutions, which assert that the Chinese have not only aggressively reclaimed land in the seven reefs they occupy in the Spratlys, they have built military facilities on them.
Not even China denies that new facilities have been built that can be converted to military use; Beijing only denies that the new facilities are military in objective.
Why the official speaking on behalf of the president of the Philippines should prioritise what China says (“if there is such a militarisation – which China denies”) over the informed judgement of Filipino citizens and indeed of the Philippine military is puzzling.
Why that same official, a lawyer like the president he speaks for, would assert easily disproved lies (“If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything”) is a mystery.
Why he would think that his answers, and the Philippine government’s position, meet the national interest (“let’s not talk of a militarisation that happened under the Duterte administration”) is an enigma.
The truth is, only Beijing thinks that the alternative is war. To be more precise, Beijing wants us to think that the only alternative to the current state of affairs is war.
President Duterte himself said so. Referring to Xi, China’s all-powerful leader, he said: “His response to me, ‘We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.’”
Tellingly, no Chinese government agency ever denied or confirmed these remarks – and why would they? To hear the president of a sovereign state say these words is victory enough for the Chinese. If the only alternative is war, why would a baby buffalo butt heads with an enormous dragon?
But in fact, other alternatives exist.
The sweeping legal victory the Philippines won at the 2016 international arbitral tribunal, in a case filed by the previous adtministration, is proof that other options are available.
It is nothing short of tragic that the first administration to be led by a lawyer since the Marcos years does not believe in the efficacy of the law.
It would have taken time, but Manila stubbornly insisting on its rights recognised by the landmark ruling of July 12, 2016, would have had the support of many influential members of the international community.
Instead, we have the tragic spectacle of the president’s spokesperson, lying about the objective facts, blaming those who actually fought for the country’s best interest, and spreading China’s own black-and-white, war-or-else gospel.
History repeats itself, first as spectacle, then as capitulation.